Encyclopedia Womannica

Explorers & Contenders: Wilma Rudolph

Episode Summary

Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994) was a pioneering American athlete who overcame childhood paralysis to become a legendary track and field star. She was an Olympic champion, and international sports icon following her performances in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s contender was a pioneering American athlete who overcame childhood paralysis to become a legendary track and field star. She was an Olympic champion, and international sports icon following her performances in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games. Please welcome Wilma Rudolph.

Wilma was born on June 23, 1940 in Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee to Ed and Blanche Rudolph. She was the twentieth of 22 siblings born across her father’s two marriages. Soon after she was born, Wilma’s family moved to Clarksville, Tennessee so her father could work as a railway porter.

Wilma was born prematurely and she suffered a number of serious childhood illnesses in her early years including scarlet fever and pneumonia. She also had a bout of Polio when she was five. Wilma survived Polio but developed infantile paralysis in her left foot and leg as a result of the virus. This caused severe weakness and disability in that leg and forced her to wear a heavy brace to provide support. The prognosis was bleak. Wilma later wrote, “My doctor told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”

With limited medical care available to African Americans in 1940s Clarksville, Wilma’s mother made weekly bus trips with her to a historically Black medical college in Nashville for treatment and physical therapy. These treatments, along with daily massages provided by her family members, helped Wilma slowly regain strength in her left leg. By the time she was 12, Wilma had made enough progress to walk and even run without her brace.

Early on, Wilma had to be home-schooled due to illness, but when she was 7, she started attending public elementary school. By the time Wilma started high school, she was not only fully able to walk but was a basketball and track star for her school. 

Others saw her burgeoning athletic talent too. After being noticed by Tennessee State University’s track coach when she was just 14, Wilma began training regularly at Tennessee State, a track and field powerhouse at the time. She even competed for the university while still technically in high school.

When Wilma was sixteen years old, she was invited to attend the 1956 U.S. Olympic track and field team qualifying trials in Seattle, Washington. She qualified to compete in the 200-meter individual event at the 1956 Olympics, making her the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team in Melbourne, Australia. Wilma didn’t make it out of the preliminary heats in the 200-meter dash at the Olympics, but she was a member of the American 4x100 relay team that won bronze. She vowed to return to the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and win gold.

In 1958, Wilma began attending Tennessee State as a full time student while continuing her track training there. Over the next two years she won a slew of medals at international amateur and collegiate events. Still, her eye was set on the 1960 Olympics. At the 1960 U.S. track and field team qualifying trials in Abilene, Texas, Wilma set a world record in the 200-meter dash. She retained that record for the next 8 years. She also qualified for the Olympics in the 100-meter dash.

Wilma arrived at the 1960 Summer Olympics with dreams of winning gold; she left having earned her place as one of the greatest athletes of the 20thcentury. Competing on a cinder track, Wilma won gold in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and in the 4x100 meter relay. She was the first American woman in history to win three gold medals at a single Olympics. She was soon being called “The Tornado,” “The Flash” and “The Fastest Woman in History.”

The 1960 Olympics were the first games to be televised internationally, and Wilma was one of the breakout stars of the coverage along with fellow American teammates Cassius Clay (who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali) and Oscar Robertson. She was thrust into the international spotlight where she was called the greatest American female athlete of the day and was hailed for her physical grace and beauty.

After the Olympics, Wilma went on a European tour where she competed in packed stadiums across the continent. She then headed back to the U.S. where she received a heroine’s welcome. Wilma’s hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee wanted to celebrate with a parade and day of festivities. Wilma refused to attend unless the event was integrated. As a result, “Welcome Wilma Day,” held on October 4, 1960, became the first fully integrated event in Clarksville history. It was attended by an estimated 1,100 people.

In 1961, Wilma won the prestigious Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year award. A year later, at just 22 years old, Wilma retired from track competition. She wanted to leave while at the top of her game. With regard to competing in the upcoming 1964 Olympics, Wilma said, “If I won two gold medals, there would be something lacking. I'll stick with the glory I've already won like Jesse Owens did in 1936.”

After her retirement, Wilma went on to finish her degree in elementary education at Tennessee State, and became a second grade teacher and a high school track coach. Throughout the years she continued her involvement in promoting amateur athletics.

Wilma died of a brain tumor on November 12th, 1994 in Brentwood, Tennessee. She was 54 years old.

All month, we’re talking about Explorers and Contenders. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!